July 8, 2016 - The alarm goes off at 2:55am, it's time to go pull the nets again already. This is the 16th day in a row of, "split openings," meaning we have to pull the nets out of the water after the high tide, at a specific time (as opposed to fishing as the tide would dictate, letting them stay in the water longer). This means we're all on a screwy schedule that doesn't allow for much sleep..three or four hours at a time. I wake up the crew in the bunk house, and see Jimmy & Kathy are already up, firing up the generator to start the coffee.
We've been joking about how every day feels like 3 days– Wake Up, Drink Coffee and listen to the fishing announcements on the radio, pull or set the nets, load the fish, deliver the fish to the processor, come back to the cabin-where the crew is trying to unwind, take stock of necessary equipment/net repairs, go back to sleep, wake up in 3-4hrs and do it again.
Even with the crazy schedule trying everyone's physical capacity, beating up the equipment, and the fishermen grumbling that, "we should be able to fish through the tide," we're all grateful to be fishing, and catching fish. Many years we wait days or weeks for a first opener from the Dept. of Fish & Game while thousands on thousands of fish swim by our beach. We trust our district manager Tim Sands, and we listen to him everyday on AM radio making announcements about the next opener, hoping we can stay open and finally get some real sleep. He does a good job in a difficult position–making the hard decisions to about the fishing fleet and the salmon, balancing the population of fish that successfully travel upstream to spawn, and the immediate livelihood of thousands of fishermen. Say what you want about the managing biologists, but none of us fishermen want their job.
We've been catching an unusually large and consistent volume of salmon for this early in the season, which gives us hope for a good overall season. We hope that "the run" is still coming, but will continue catching a consistent and robust volume nearly all season.
Our crew is a solid one this year: the usual suspects, Kathy, Jimmy and Myself, my cousin Sean who has been before provides the comic relief, and a couple of talented new guys from Colorado, Weaver and Dan. Kathy's sister Jeanine, and her teenage kids Jack and Jessie are visiting, and help on most tides as well. Jack is especially excited this year to participate, and Jessie has a new-found talent as a photographer.
Our method of fishing is a bit unusual. We use trucks to operate 'set-nets' in to the ocean water that rises and falls with the huge, powerful tides that we get in Bristol Bay. This method brings it's own set of challenges and benefits. Lots of moving parts and equipment that is in constant need of repair and maintenance, a beach that becomes a veritable commerce route/4X4 road, and logistic challenges of fishing nets over nearly a 10 mile stretch of beach with tides that can cut you off from home if your timing isn't right. We do have some perks though, we live in cabins with our friends and families, and we can host visitors. We have dogs, campfires, and beer, and compared to the guys working on the 32ft drift-net boats in the bay, our living situation is plush.
We started out the season with a bang, literally. In a rush to make our first opener the very night we landed in the village, we were trying to get a truck repaired, and it fell off a jack and the handle of the jack struck Dan's forehead with a glancing blow, opening up his scalp and requiring an emergency plane trip back to Dillingham. We hadn't been in the village for more than 2 hrs... it was a bit of a wake-up call and and shook up our small crew, forcing us to slow down and re-focus on doing things right–not just fast. This isn't the 'deadliest catch' out here, but there's lots of moving parts, and plenty of opportunity to get hurt. We got lucky that Dan was ok with just a couple of steri-strips and back on the beach the next morning, but we were reminded that we're in remote Alaska, and there's not a lot of resources out here in an emergency. (you don't want to have to rely on the cannery nurse in an emergency, we now know this.) After our minor medical emergency and the fierce 2-day storm that followed, we were fishing.
The short opener's have made our twice-daily 11mile drive down the beach a four-trip schedule. Each tide we go set the nets out on the incoming tide, and return to pull them out on the outgoing tide, twice a day and often in the middle of the night.
This exhausting schedule kept up for about the first 15 days of the season. Fishermen and women up and down our beach worked (and looked) like zombies, operating on little sleep, lots of caffeine, and short patience.
We finally got to sleep a full night on July 9. The opener kept us open "until further notice". We all finally slept a full night.
A more normal schedule allows us to get in a better rhythm and even spend some more time hanging out with our neighbors that have become close friends over the years. Our good friends, the Friedmans come over for dinner sometimes, and we go to their cabin some nights. Avi Friedman, one of the most colorful characters I've ever known, has operated his fishing operation for 35 years and his stalwart crewman Dan, has been fishing for Avi for a decade. They're good people, and as hardworking as they come. Avi processes his own salmon for sale in Baltimore, and both he and Dan's daughters are also on the crew, and help with both fishing and processing. They're great friends, and just a few of the unusual characters that fish in our little corner of the world.
The days bleed together as I think back on the season–Great laughs around hot coffee in the cabin with good friends and family, watching a full net of salmon come out of the water in the foggy early hours, excited that we're catching fish and making money, but knowing how much work it brings. Helping other fishermen out of a jam with equipment troubles or shortage of hands, and receiving help just as often. Hilarious and sometimes bizarre interactions with fellow fishermen, and the inside jokes that these created. The 'crew' dynamic, this is my favorite part.
Every summer in Bristol Bay brings it's own adventures, challenges, joys, friendships, and unforgettable experiences. I for one, love it, and feel immeasurably lucky to be able to experience the whole thing with good friends.
More photos coming shortly...
Setting net anchors at a low tide just before the season starts
Drift-Boats waiting for their opener under ominous skies and Bristol Bay moon.
One of the many deltas and drainages that provide ideal spawning grounds for salmon.
Crew member Dan filleting our dinner.
Sunny day photo opportunity